Ken Burns: What Is a National Treasure?Ken Burns
Parade’s National Treasures are similar to many of the subjects and topics that you have pursued in your films.
Yeah. I’m curious about how my country works. Each film asks a deceptively simple question: Who are we—these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? And the investigation of those cherished places, institutions and people becomes a way into a collective national sense of identity that is particularly lost in immediate culture that is so interested in pointing out the differences, that’s so interested in how we’re separate from each other: We’re either black or white. We’re young; we’re old. We’re rich; we’re poor. We’re gay; we’re straight. We’re East; we’re West. We’re North; we’re South. We’re Red State; we’re Blue State. We always make these distinctions, forgetting that we share much more in common than we do in our differences. So I’ve been interested in those stories that bind us together that suggest the ways in which we might cohere.
And the first thing that always comes to mind is our national parks. For the first time in human history, land was set aside, not for the rich or royalty, but for everyone and for all time, which makes every reader of your magazine a co-owner of some of the most spectacular places on the face of this Earth. That we are the co-owners of the grandest canyon on Earth, of the great valleys of Yosemite and Zion, and the windswept deserts of Utah, where we see erosions carving extraordinary things like arches and hoodoos and other natural formations. You’ve got places in Alaska where you see the highest peaks on our continent, Mt. McKinley or Denali…when you’re in Hawaii, where you see the formation of land itself, where active volcanoes happen. But we as a people didn’t just stay static with the idea that we ought to preserve our natural wonders. We were interested in honoring a true, honest, complicated past. We have not just set aside those natural wonders, but we have places of historical significance. Most countries followed in our lead, saving not only natural places but historical places.
How would you define a National Treasure?
I think a National Treasure ought to be something that resonates with all of us, no matter what your political orientation, no matter where you live, what sex you are. You are drawn to something because it speaks to us because of the things we have in common. The Latin motto of the United States is E pluribus unum, and that means ‘Out of many, one.’ But we live in a time as the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. used to complain, where we suffer today from too much pluribus and not enough unum. So I see the idea of a national treasure as something that reminds us of the things we share in common, not the things that separate us and send us in our own way, separate from our neighbors and each other, but things that bring us together, things that reflect the values on the United States.
Many people approach what those values are from different points of view, and that’s perfectly alright. But I think we’ve gotten into the habit more recently of denigrating the other perspective rather than sharing it. I believe history, and by extension, the idea of identifying national treasures, tables around which we can still have a coherent and a civil discourse. Let me put it another way: Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow both genuinely love Abraham Lincoln. That means there is a place to start in our fractured society. Start with what we know, start with what we share together, and grow the conversation.
You’re working on several upcoming projects—on country music, Jackie Robinson, Vietnam, Ernest Hemingway. How do you choose, out of America’s rich tapestry, which threads you’re going to follow?
For me as a craftsman or an artist, whatever it is, it’s an emotional thing. It’s like how you choose your friends. I have got a thousand subjects dancing in my head. I could live a thousand years and never run out of topics in American history to tell. I’m always engaged in the fundamental question of who are we. Who am I? is the question hidden behind it. What does the American experiment suggest in the positive progress for mankind?
We all can’t hunt treasures as you do, as a documentary filmmaker. But how can everyone better recognize the “American treasures” all around us?
We can do it in a few ways; we can do it in education. We need to invigorate the teaching of history. The teaching of history is not only the shared glories of our American heritage, but the way in which events in the present can be explained through events in the past—good and bad things. If you have a powerful understanding of American history, it puts you in a better perspective for what went on in Baltimore. So we’re kind of obligated to do that.
The press is a hugely important part and component of this working engine, this engine of democracy, this machine one of the early founders said, ‘that would go of it.’ They thought the Constitution was a living, breathing document, implying that we’d invented a perpetual motion machine. I think part of what makes that run so smoothly is an antagonistic, questioning and skeptical press. And I don’t mean antagonistic, in a pejorative way; I mean it in a ‘Yes, but…’ way. I think that there are obligations within our media.
I think there are obligations within our religious institutions, across all the religious institutions. I think it begins in the home and in the family with what we do know. I’m in the process right now of writing a children’s book about the American presidency. I want to be able, as I’ve done informally with my own little kids growing up, to communicate the story of the presidents, all of them.
I think all of these ways are important. They serve our forward progress by reminding us of the glories and the complicated aspects of our shared past.